Tyranny Essay

Within The Republic, Plato states that tyranny is “the most diseased” kind
of society (Republic, 544c). Aristotle echoes this belief when he boldly asserts
within Politics that great honours should be “bestowed… on him who kills a
tyrant.” (Politics, 1267a15) From these quotes alone, it is clear that both
share a disdain for tyranny. This essay will compare and contrast Plato (the
Republic) with Aristotle (the Politics) on the causes and consequences of
tyranny. In order to grasp how Plato accounts for the development of tyranny, it
is important to understand how he equates the city with the soul. Within The
Republic, Plato explains that the soul consists of three parts: reason (wisdom),
spirit (courage/honour) and appetite (moderation/desire). The class structure of
Plato’s ideal city also embodies these divisions: The guardians or”philosopher kings” represent wisdom and are entrusted to rule; the
auxiliaries represent courage and serve to protect the city; the producers
represent moderation and serve to provide the economic and agricultural base for
the city. While, as Plato connotes in this analogy, all three parts have a place
in constructing the ideal, reason is the guiding force that mediates and draws
from the competing nature of these parts to produce a just city. Accordingly,
since “change in every regime comes from that part of it which holds the
ruling offices,” (Republic, 551d) it is the loss of reason by the ruling class
which destroys the just city and provides for the eventual onset of tyranny, a
state devoid of harmony amongst its parts. In explaining how the ideal city
would eventually degenerate, Plato puts forth a four-stage linear digression
towards tyranny. From the ideal state, a timocracy is first born from the love
of honour. As wealth becomes cherished among the citizens, timocracy gives way
to oligarchy. In an oligarchic state, the desire for freedom or license leads to
the rise of democracy. And finally, as the desire for freedom increases and
becomes limitless, the city is said to fall into a state of tyranny. Thus, for
Plato, a tyrant is a democrat who has lost all restraint. While Plato views the
decay towards tyranny as a uniform digression, the presence of this widespread
decay ultimately creates the conditions for one person to rise to power.

(Republic, 565d) Within this digression, reason is gradually overcome by
appetite until an “insatiable desire” for freedom transforms a democracy
into a tyranny. While such terms as “freedom” and “democracy” may elicit
certain connotations for the contemporary reader, it is important to keep in
mind that Plato views a regime that promotes freedom and license as its primary
objective as a place where reason is overcome by desire. While citizens of such
regimes might equate unrestricted democracy with freedom, as Plato explains,
“the real tyrant is, even if he doesn’t seem so…in truth a real slave.”
(Republic, 579d) In practical terms, Plato views money and private property as
the floodgate to this decay: Whenever they’ll possess private land, houses,
and currency, they’ll become… masters and enemies instead of allies of the
other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against,
they’ll lead their lives far more afraid of the enemies within than those
without. Then they themselves as well as the rest of the city are already
rushing towards a destruction that lies very near. (Republic, 417a) Since in the
ideal city or soul, a proper balance of its parts produces justice, tyranny, in
Plato’s view, is the complete absence of justice resulting from an emphasis on
the search for private property and self-gratification. While Aristotle
acknowledges that a philosopher king, as presented by Plato, should be allowed
to rule, he is skeptical that such a figure could exist. He is critical of The
Republic as he does not see Plato’s tripartite construction as a probable or
even desirable structure. Choosing a more pragmatic lens, Aristotle approaches
politics by drawing upon the existent structures of government, namely monarchy
as the rule by one person, aristocracy as the rule by the few and constitutional
government as the rule by the many. Outlining their negative counterparts,
Aristotle refers to the rule by the many as a democracy, by the few as an
oligarchy, and by the one as a tyranny. “For tyranny is a kind of monarchy
which has in view the interest of the monarch only.” (Politics, 1279b) While
this list may resemble that of Plato’s, Aristotle refutes the linear
digression into tyranny put forth within The Republic. (Politics, 1303a15-30)
Although Aristotle advocates a mixed regime or “polity” as the best possible
political system, he believes that, in certain situations, other types of
government would not only be successful but also desirable. While a monarchy may
more easily lend itself to despotic rule, no one regime, in its positive form,
leads to the creation of a tyranny. As Aristotle states, “…while one
constitution is more choiceworthy, nothing prevents a different one from being
more beneficial to some.” (Politics, 1296b10) Like Plato, Aristotle singles
out excessive desire as the force that drives people to tyranny, “for desire
is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are
the best of men.” (Politics, 1287a30) He does not, however, accept Plato’s
assertion that this desire is an offspring of private property. For Aristotle,
private property is a means to a non-economic end. He points out that things
held in common are not as valued and cared for as those things which people
claim ownership and responsibility for. Used in the proper way, Aristotle
argues, private property does not lead to tyranny. It is only when people live
solely for wealth and private property and become “slaves of their
pleasures” that tyranny flourishes. By making the city analogous with the
soul, Plato presents the decay towards tyranny as a series of homogenous changes
within the attitudes of both the ruled and the rulers. Alternatively, Aristotle
views the onset of tyranny as primarily originating from one individual. This
trickledown view of tyranny promotes tyranny as the ability of an individual to
indoctrinate the masses, “for only a great soul can live in the midst of
trouble and wrong without itself committing any base act.” (Politics, 1253a31)
Although Plato and Aristotle disagree as to the origin of tyranny, both conclude
that in end a despotic ruler will come to power. Turning from the analysis of
the causes of tyranny, we find that both philosophers share some important
points on its consequences. To ensure that the citizens would not constitute a
threat to the tyrant, both philosophers surmise that a tyrant must divert the
attention of the masses. To this end, they point to war as a diversionary tactic
taken on by the tyrant. (Republic, 566e and Politics, 1308a28) As history has
shown us, by providing the public with the pressing issues of war, a tyrant can
forge and fortify his regime in the name of national security. By diverting the
public’s attention, as Plato states, tyrants will “force [the public] to
attend to earning their daily bread rather than to plot against him.”
(Republic, 567a) By structuring society so that citizens are caught up in their
private affairs, the tyrant ensures that there is little or no time to focus on
other issues. This is a particularly important point for Aristotle who, unlike
Plato, sees a value in public political participation. Within the “polity”
put forth by Aristotle, citizens enter into politics (to the best of their
ability) only after they have managed to put their economic necessities or”household” into order. (Politics, 1328b37) It is only when citizens are
free from having to focus on the necessities of their private lives that they
can find the leisure to participate in politics. Since Aristotle defines
citizens as “only those who are freed from necessary services,” (Politics,
1278a10) a city under the rule of a tyrant, in Aristotle’s view, does not have
citizens. While both philosophers acknowledge that tyrants need to occupy the
public’s attention, in noting Plato’s distaste for public participation in
politics, it is Aristotle who extends the notion that tyrannies depoliticize the
public. Plato suggests that since the public is not aware of their political
environment, the tyrant will present himself as a “gracious and gentle”
leader to further pacify them. (Republic, 560e) To further protect his rule,
Aristotle believes that the tyrant will sow mistrust among the citizens, “for
a tyranny will not be overthrown until some people trust each other.”
(Politics, 1314a15) By promoting distrust within the state, the citizens, who
are already busy with their own work and personal lives, will be discourage from
publicly expressing any condescending view on the political regime. Moreover, by
encouraging citizens to be wary of their neigbours, the people themselves could
serve as an extended type of police. As both authors connote, deceit alone will
not secure a tyrant’s power. Once the tyrant has succeeded in becoming ruler,
he must eliminate anyone that might threaten his rule. As Plato states, “[a
tyrant] must keep a sharp eye out for men of courage or vision or intelligence
or wealth… until he has purged them from the state.” (Republic, 567b)
Aristotle agrees, saying “the tyrant should lop off the heads of those who are
too high and he must put to death men of spirit.” (Politics, 1284a29) By
ridding the city of other potential leaders, the tyrant promotes a type of
mediocrity amongst the citizens. As a result, scientists, philosophers, and
others whose talents or wealth might be perceived by the tyrant as a threat will
either meet with strong oppression or death. Since such violence will likely
result in some sort of discontent ? for even within such an obsessed and
self-serving public depicted by Plato, the loss of one’s father or brother
will not occur without some form of disapproval ? a tyrant will be forced to
make provisions for his personal safety. To this end, both Plato and Aristotle
state that tyrants are compelled to have bodyguards. Both thinkers see the
tyrants drawing their protectors from the same outside pool: Aristotle states
that while legitimate rulers “have bodyguards drawn from the citizens…

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[tyrants] have their bodyguards to protect them against the citizens”
(Politics, 1285a25) while Plato believes that the tyrant will not draw his
bodyguards from the citizenry, but rather from the slaves (who are not
considered citizens) (Republic, 567e). In turn these devoted bodyguards will
protect the tyrant and prevent any popular discontent, much like contemporary
tyrants have done through the use of their armies or national guard. Plato’s
Republic and Aristotle’s Politics provide us with some of the earliest
documented theories of tyranny. While many scholars are critical of some of
these insights, the two thousand years since their release have demonstrated the
relevance of many of the key ideas. The contribution of these two philosophers
in this and many other fields merits recognition. As Issac Newton once said, it
is “only by standing on the shoulders of giants” that we have come this far.


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